Skip to content

Camille Paglia And The Consciousness-Light Day Of Western Man

Camille Paglia infuriated feminists when she observed in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990) that males—as biological beings—are responsible for the development of civilized life and most of the world’s cultural creativity. What no one has wanted to say is that the implicit argument throughout Sexual Personae is that only white males have possessed the Apollonian rationality that “has taken us to the stars”.

Paglia says “males”, but whenever she writes about male achievement she refers to the creativity of “western life and thought”. Behind this discrepancy—between Paglia’s declaratory statements and actual argumentation—lies a lack of differentiation between the generic civilizations created by males around the world (who never fully affirmed their masculine otherness against the unconscious power of the Great Mother) and the ancient Greek civilization created by Indo-European males (who fully crystallized and detached their masculine consciousness from the ‘feminine’ unconscious).

Consciousness, as such, is masculine, but consciousness of consciousness is a trait singular to European males, and the roots of this trait lie in the hyper patriarchal world of Indo-European pastoralists. That there was a fundamental difference between the societies created by Aryans with their dominant masculine sky gods, and the generic civilizations of the east with their “harmonious balance” between their agricultural/ maternal fertility goddesses and their sky gods, was long suspected but subsequently suppressed by academics after the Second World War. We can refer here in passing to the most renowned Catholic historian, Christopher Dawson, who observed in a book, The Age of Gods, published in 1928, that the Indo-Europeans who conquered Old Europe (fully permeated by fertility goddesses and matrilineal inheritance) were progenitors of “a new type of society — that of the nomadic pastoral tribe — based on the combination of the life of the hunter with that of the shepherd…a culture…possessing a higher degree of mobility and a greater aptitude for war,” “patriarchal and aristocratic,” in which “the masculine element everywhere predominates,” and in which the leading males are “concerned not so much with the Earth as with…the powers of Heaven — the Sky, the Sun, and the Storm — that take the first place in his worship”.

Neumann on the “Hero Myth” and the Origins of Consciousness

Paglia went along with the academic unwillingness to differentiate Indo-European societies from generic eastern civilizations. She drew from Erich Neumann the idea that the development of civilization entails the detachment of the male ego from the unconscious world of fertility goddesses, and that this process of masculinization results in the development of consciousness. In using the term “ego consciousness”, Neumann had in mind Carl Jung’s identification of the component of the psyche that is responsible for decision-making. Being ego-conscious means that one is aware of one’s identity as a separate being in charge of one’s thoughts, capable of distinguishing the inner and the outer world, in contrast to that part of the personality that is driven by unconscious primal forces.

Neumann constructed a highly complicated account of the evolution of ego-consciousness in his fascinating book, The Origins and History of Consciousness, originally published in German in 1949. He demarcated a number of stages in the evolution of consciousness, beginning with the Uroboros stage, “when the ego is contained in the unconscious”, followed by the intermediary stages of the World Creation, the Great Mother, the Separation of the World Parents, and then a sequence of stages coming after the Birth of the Hero, which is the stage when the ego initiates its detachment from the unconscious world of totemism and from the fertility mysteries of the Great Mother. While there is a lot more to Neumann, it might be correct to say — at least insofar as we are interested in connecting his ideas to Paglia’s focus on the Great Mother — that in all stages prior to the Birth of the Hero, the male ego barely exists, men are under the tutelage of mysterious forces they barely comprehend, they don’t have a mind of their own, they can barely distinguish themselves from the external world of objects and the group to which they belong, but instead project their inner psychic contents to natural objects, overwhelmed by the fertility powers of nature, fearful and childlike.

Before their self-emancipation from the Great Mother, males are dependent on the fullness and abundance of the good mother, the nutrient earth, the comforts of being attached to nature. Their ego consciousness, in the words of Neumann, is “undeveloped and still embedded in nature”. With their maturation and eventual emancipation, males make themselves “the responsible center of the cosmos”. Civilizations are created by great male individuals—the chiefs, medicine men, or divine kings—who announce that on them “depends the rising of the sun, the fertility of the crops”. As men emancipate themselves from fertility goddesses, they go on to create their own male divinities, patriarchal, sky-gods standing above the earth.

Neumann knows that one does not find everywhere in the world’s cultures “all the stages of conscious development,” and that the rise of ego-consciousness is strictly a phenomenon brought about by men trying to demonstrate their maleness by making their ego the headquarters of decision making. He knows, too, that the emancipation of the ego reached its highest levels in the West and that the “correlation of consciousness with masculinity culminates in the development of [Western] science”. Yet he does not consider the possibility that different cultures and civilizations may have achieved different levels of masculinization and emancipation of the ego. He does not think through the fact that the West reached higher levels of ego emancipation because it reached higher levels of masculinization, higher levels of separation from the Great Mother. He does note that even after the birth of the hero and the rise of civilizations, men “may still submit to the great chthonic fertility goddess…because of the Great Mother’s dominance in the masculine unconscious”. But overall his view is that “it is no accident that all human culture, and not Western civilization alone, is masculine in character.”

What if the heroic myth took on a more intensive form, expressing higher levels of masculinization and ego development, in the Indo-European world? The “birth of the hero” is central to Neumann’s argument about the birth of consciousness. This is a myth about how young men discover themselves through the formation of warrior bands operating outside their matrilineal conditions. In joining these bands, a young man subjects himself to trials of endurance that test his virility, the stability of his ego, their capacity to overcome fear, hunger, and pain, “to master one’s unconscious impulses and childish fears”. Neumann writes of the “hero myth” as a cross-cultural phenomenon. He does not consider whether some cultures may have been more obsessed with heroism, or whether in some cultures there were more opportunities for individual heroism and thus for the “marking off of the ego from the anonymous collective”.

He writes generically about how the ego, which is inherently masculine, increases in strength as it marks itself off from the collective unconscious of the Great Mother. He writes about how men become aware of their “individuality”, which is male in essence, through the performance of actions initiated by them, against the enveloping world of unconscious longing for motherly safety, fighting against tiredness, learning “to overcome the body and the inertia of the unconscious”, fortifying the male ego against the demands of the body, which are inevitably experienced “as feminine”. Through initiation and self-chosen deeds, males “are reborn as children of the spirit rather than of the mother; they are sons of heaven, not just sons of the earth”. The hero becomes the “higher man”, which leads to a correlation between heaven and masculinity, and to patriarchal gods.

Paglia mentions Neumann a few times in the opening chapters of Sexual Personae, but in reference to his better known book, The Great Mother (1951). She acknowledges the influence of Neumann in an article published in 2006. This article is descriptive. A critical assessment of Neumann’s scholarship is beyond my competence. One must be heavily steeped in the psychology of Carl Jung. I will say that in the degree to which Neumann accepts the universality of the myth of the hero, he draws no differences between Indo-European myths and the “hero myth” of other cultures. He commingles multiple stories, preferring to focus on their common archetypal meaning. While Neumann uses the word “psychological stages” in the subtitle, there are no clear historical references and demarcations in regards to these stages. While he is aware of the continued existence of “stationary cultures…where..the earliest stages of man’s psychology predominate,” in stark contrast the full development of ego consciousness in the West, he does not consider the implications this dramatic contrast in the development of consciousness may have for a theory that speaks about human consciousness rather than Western consciousness. Paglia, too, writes generally about “earth-cult” and “sky-cult” cultures.

Hyper Masculinization Process of the Indo-Europeans

I believe that only Indo-Europeans witnessed a complete differentiation and crystallization of the masculine ego consciousness. By “Indo-European” I mean a pastoral people from the Pontic-Caspian steppes who initiated the most mobile, patriarchal, and heroic way of life in prehistoric times. They were the first people to ride horses and rely heavily on wheel vehicles in the fourth millennium. They were responsible for the “secondary-products” revolution — which is about making the most of animal husbandry, making dairy products, eating meat, harnessing animals for transportation, engaging in large-scale herding, and inventing chariots — in the 2nd millennium. They were the only true aristocratic people in history in that all the leading men were equal in nobility and never acted submissive in their relations with the paramount chief or king. They were grouped into war bands that were freely constituted associations operating in partial autonomy from tribal and matrilineal ties. These bands could be initiated by any powerful individual on the merits of one’s martial abilities. The relation between the chief and his followers was personal and contractual: the followers would volunteer to be bound to the leader by oaths of loyalty in which they would promise to assist him while the leader would promise to reward them from successful raids.

These “groups of comrades” were singularly dedicated to “wolf-like” living by hunting and raiding, and to the performance of heroic deeds. They were driven not only by economic needs but by a deep-seated psychological need to demonstrate they were no longer fearful boys in a state of motherly dependence, or weak men consumed by the feminine fear of death. Their noble status was proven through manly struggle, the risking of one’s life in a battle to the death for individual glory. Although band members belonged to a cohesive and loyal group of like-minded individuals, they were not swallowed up anonymously within the group. They developed “individualizing chiefdoms” in which the status of the chiefs was linked to the pursuit of heroic deeds in warfare and the accumulation of prestige goods in exchange networks, in contrast to the the group-oriented chiefdoms of the east, where the elite males were effeminate in their subservience to despotic and fertility-oriented rulers and in which wealth was accumulated primarily through a collective agrarian economy. The self-discovery of the ego by males was limited or stalled in eastern despotic chiefdoms. Man acquires full dignity, honor, and self-determination only in a state of aristocratic egalitarianism.

Paglia’s Masculine-Apollonian Culture of Western Civilization

Paglia does not write about Indo-Europeans, though she is aware that ancient Greek civilization was more heavily infused with masculine sky gods and far more creative than any other ancient culture. She does observe that eastern cultures “retained the ancient meanings of femaleness long after the west renounced them”; she notes as well that “the last major western society to worship female powers was Minoan Crete”, and that a Mycenaean “warrior culture” with a “sky cult” replaced Minoan culture and lay the foundations for ancient classical Greece. (It should be noted here that Mycenae was founded by Indo-European invaders who superimposed themselves on natives who venerated the earth and goddesses of fertility). She also observes that “compliance” with nature was the norm in the east, as oppose to western “confrontation”; and she notes, too, that the “sky-cult and earth-cult were harmonized” in Egypt, whereas in Greece there was a split, with the sky gods in a position of dominance.

Despite these acute observations, and her almost singular attribution of cultural “greatness” to western civilization, Paglia’s declaratory statements are always about the biological differences between males and females as such. “All the genres of philosophy, science, high art, athletics, and politics were invented by men”. She knows that “everything great in western civilization has come from a struggle against our origins” in nature, against the “mother-cult”, and she knows that only western man refused to reconcile with nature, however impossible it is to escape nature. But her intellectual struggle was directly against the feminist refusal to accept biological differences between the sexes, so she framed her thesis in gender terms, rather than in ethnic terms, along with her own sympathies for multiculturalism. In our current times when academics are dedicated to the replacement of white culture with diversity, we must be upfront in stating that the incipient argument in Paglia is about the uniquely Apollonian will-to-power of white males.

Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae emanates an incandescent, luminous Western masculine light. Neumann says that consciousness “is masculine even in women, just as the unconscious is feminine in men”. “Woman feels at home in her unconscious and out of her element in consciousness”. Paglia is a rare women who feels at home in her consciousness. She attributes the immense creativity of the West to the “Apollonian mind” of males as such. This mind has the “delusional certitude” that it can push back and defeat the primordial darkness of daemonic nature “by naming and classifying,” by using “the cold light of intellect”. In all tribal cultures women were identified with nature, “femaleness was honored as an immanent principle of fertility.” Civilized life, urbanity and commerce, was made possible through the suppression of the violent, unconscious, subterranean hostility, and repetitive cycles of nature. “All cultural achievement is a projection,” she writes, and only men “are anatomically destined to be projectors”.

Men are genetically condemned to a perpetual pattern of linearity, focus, aim, directness…Without aim, urination and ejaculation end in infantile soiling of self or surroundings…Men are in a constant state of sexual anxiety, living on the pins and needles of their hormones. In sex as in life they are driven beyond — beyond the self, beyond the body…They wonder the earth seeking satisfaction, craving and despising, never content…They must quest, pursue, court, or seize…Women have conceptualized less in history not because men have kept them from doing so but because women do not need to conceptualize in order to exist.

Female anatomy is closer to nature, absorbed by the cycles of nature. Women do “not dream of transcendental or historical escape from natural cycle, since she is that cycle”.

Women’s body is a sea acted upon by the month’s lunar wave-motion. Sluggish and dormant, her fatty tissues are gorged with water, then suddenly cleansed at hormonal high tide…Pregnancy demonstrates the deterministic character of women’s sexuality. Every pregnant woman has a body and self taken over by a chthonian force beyond her control.

But Paglia’s thesis is that we can never escape the power of nature. Men were able to liberate their consciousness from the chthonian darkness of primal times, and create civilized life through their rationalism, but the energy of nature, the “chaos of the libido”, remains. However “spectacular” the “glory of male civilization” has been (“which has lifted women with it”), and however much nature has been conceptualized and managed by males, and the primal sexual drives socialized into conventional marriages, we are delusional to think that nature can be nurtured out of existence. “Nature has a master agenda we can only dimly know”. We can never transcend the power of nature, the chthonian drama of female sexuality, and the lifelong anxiety males have fighting off “effeminacy day by day” in their quest to prove they are good at being men.

Paglia’s argument is that artistic creativity has been spurred on by this struggle between the Apollonian personality of “the west’s absolutist ego structure” and the Dionysian fusion of male and female, between the orderly world of scientific classifications and the primal forces of sexual nature. Although “there is neither person, thought, thing, nor art in the brutal chthonian”, and although it was the west’s Apollonian “individuation” that produced “the west’s greatness”, this greatness was not a product of peaceful and calmed ratiocination; the “mechanistic male drive in western culture” has always come along with “phallic aggression” and sexual anxiety. Paglia celebrates “woman’s ancient mystery and glamour”. She admires the permanent sexual power women will always have over men.

Apollo: God of Light

Notwithstanding Greek and Roman classicism, “clarity, order, proportion, balance”, and the fact that the sky-cult “kept nature in her place”, the pagans did not try to suppress sexual nature; they sought to give it form and promote female beauty. “Apollonian high glamour”, under the influence of the Egyptians, was aimed at fighting off the impersonal facelessness of primitive sex and the formlessness of the fecund female body. Christianity tried to defeat this pagan beautification of female sexuality, but it failed; and while “Western civilization has profited enormously from the sublimation Christianity forced on sex,” paganism survived in western art, “in the thousand forms of sex, art, and now the modern media”. This has been a spur to western creativity along with the never-to-be defeated power of nature’s chaos. The greatness of western civilization has entailed a constant struggle of Apollonian man against nature and the permanence of the unconscious.

Paglia says that Egypt “forged the formalistic Apollonian line…invented glamour, beauty as power and power as beauty”. “The masculine art form of construction  begins in Egypt.” “The ideal human figure in Egypt is a pillar…The body is an obelisk, square, phallic, sky-pointing, an Apollonian line defying time and organic change”. “Egyptian art is…based on the incised edge…Its hardness of surface repels the eye. This masculine hardness is an abolition of female interiority”. But once this Apollonian idea entered Europe through Greece, she believes it remained “the principal distinction between western and eastern culture.” As much as she eulogizes Egypt’s invention of elegance, she readily admits that “Egyptian culture flourished relatively unchanged for three thousand years…Stagnancy, a stultifying lack of individualism” were the norm. Why?

Her answer seems to be that “in Greece Apollo and Dionysus were at odds, but in Egypt they were reconciled. Egyptian art was a fusion of the conceptual with the chthonian, the form-making of consciousness and the shadowy flux of procreative nature” “Chthonian mysteries are the secret of Egypt’s perennial fascination. The gross and barbaric proliferated.” I can’t judge Paglia’s assessment of Egypt’s Apollonian contribution in the arts. The Egyptian contributions to mathematics and geometry, I can say, was practical and elementary, without a single contribution to philosophy, political theory, literature, music, law, and theoretical science. Basically, Egypt’s contribution consisted in being one of the first civilizations to use plows, intense irrigation works, writing, pottery, glassmaking and metalworking.

The passages I have cited from Paglia come from the first three chapters of Sexual Personae, “Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art”, “The Birth of the Western Eye”, and “Apollo and Dionysus”. I read these chapters some years ago without really appreciating how they could be integrated into a discussion of Western uniqueness. I have yet to read the rest of the book’s study of major Western works in poetry and literature. In her direct declarations about “western greatness” and her choice of literature, Sexual Personae is inescapably about the Western male and the Western female, Western form and Western chaos, Western civilization and Western daemonic nature, rather than about these words without the word “Western”, as everyone else thinks.

Crisis of Western Consciousness

We have reached a “critical point”, Paglia observes, in the reassertion of paganism to a degree beyond the periodic Dionysian discharges of the Renaissance and Romantic eras, “with the rebirth of the gods in the massive idolatries of popular cultures, with the eruptions of sex and violence into every corner of the ubiquitous mass media”. Neumann, in a rather different way, possibly because he was writing in the late 1940s before the Dionysian exuberance of the 1960s, believes that the “crisis of the West” was due to the excessive inflation of the ego at the cost of a more harmonious integration  of the conscious side of the personality with the unconscious side. He agrees with Paglia, using Jungian terminology, that the “connection of the conscious system with the emotionally toned substrata of the unconscious alone makes creativity possible”. The higher emancipation of the Western male ego did not mean that the unconscious world of archetypes lost its power over consciousness. The unconscious has always been a driving force lurking behind the emancipating ego. The difference is that Western man became more aware of his ego, his own self-determined thoughts, feelings, and actions. It is not that he got rid of the unconscious. The archetypes continue to inhabit his mind, exercising their influence indirectly through the collective unconscious.

At the same time, without the emancipation of the ego, Carl Jung would not have been able to discover that each of us is born with personal memories as well as memories about the collective experiences of one’s ancestors, shared archetypes that are particular to a culture or a people, as well as universal archetypes that concern the historical memory of humanity. The crisis Neumann has in mind concerns the “overaccentuation of consciousness, ego, and reason” in the West. He believes that “the differentiating and emotion-repressing trend of Western development” is now having “a sterilizing effect [that is hampering] the widening of consciousness”. The ego and the unconscious are split in Western man, rather than being in healthy contact, forming a psychic wholeness. The atomized individuals of the West don’t have a connection to a shared unconscious, based on traditions, shared archetypes, but are instead units of a mass society, individuals forming a pseudo unity through a national state in charge of mass propaganda; and while they may surrender their egos to this mass, surrendering the self in an orgy of mass participations, this re-collectivization is nihilistic and destructive. Neumann was thinking of National Socialism.

We should be thinking about how the coupling of modernity with race mixing and multiculturalism have weakened the unconscious and primordial aspects of our Indo-European heritage, the very heroic figures who began the emancipation of the ego. Current Jungians want a globalized generic species that integrates in a harmonious way the ego of modernity with universal archetypes that belong to the historical memory of humanity. We should be talking about how race mixing threatens with extinction the racially differentiated archetypes Jung recognized in the respective psyches of European cultures.

Please follow and like us: